Viola Spolin has been called the "high priestess of improvisational theatre". Born in Chicago in 1906, Spolin is best known as the creator of theater games, originally created as a series of exercises to aid students in the study of drama. Spolin learned these techniques while studying experimental theatre and play theory with Neva Boyd at Hull House's Recreational Training School in 1924-1926. Boyd moved the school to Northwestern University in 1927 when she was appointed to the faculty, but she remained a highly influential figure in Spolin's career. Her work references Boyd often.
After taking off a few years to raise her two sons, Paul and Bill Sills, she returned to work with the WPA Recreation Project as a drama supervisor from 1939 to 1941. While working for the WPA, Spolin taught drama in mostly poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Because of this, Spolin perceived a need for an easily grasped system of theater training that could cross the cultural and ethnic barriers within the WPA Project. This served as the catalyst for the creation of what would eventually be referred to by Spolin as "theater games."
In 1942 she went to California to set up her own theater in Hollywood, the Young Actors Company. Here, children were trained to perform in production by way of the theater games method. Spolin's work at Young Actors Company continued for ten years, at which point she closed up shop and became involved in Paul Sills' work back in Chicago. In 1955, Spolin returned to Chicago to conduct workshops at the Playwrights Theater Club and at the Compass Theater.
Spolin returned to Chicago full time in 1960 to run improvisation workshops for the cast of Second City. As an outgrowth of her work with Second City, Spolin published Improvisation for the Theater in 1963, which resulted in much critical acclaim and solidified her reputation in improvisational theater.
In 1965, Spolin left Second City to co-found Game Theater with Paul Sills, also in Chicago. Spolin also acted as a special consultant for Story Theater in Los Angeles and New York in 1970-1972. While on the west coast, Spolin conducted workshops for the casts of Rhoda and Friends and Lovers.
After her consultancy with Story Theater ended in 1972, Spolin returned to California and established the Spolin Theater Game Center, a non-profit theater education center. The Center began offering classes and workshops in 1975.
Upon her voyage to Chicago in 1960, and throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Spolin began engaging students at numerous college campuses via workshops, classes, and lectures . She had extensive engagements as a visiting instructor for San Francisco State College, Brandeis University, and Sarah Lawrence College, among others.
In 1975, Spolin released the Theater Game File, a selection of "theater games" printed on cards, to be used in classes and workshops. The File made theater games more functionally accessible, and led to their increased use in primary and secondary educational settings.
Spolin continued conducting educational workshops until the mid-1980s. She died in 1994.